Contesting a losing decision

    About every three or four years I like to repeat my mistakes. So when Ralph, my general manager, suggested we have a contest to name two employees of the month, I was mildly receptive.
   "You realize we’ve done that before," I warned, "and it was a disaster."
   "This will be different," replied Ralph. "I’ve already mentioned it to a couple of employees, and they’re really excited. I think we can get some mileage out of it."
   I shrugged, unwilling to dampen Ralph’s enthusiasm. It was decided to award a $200 prize for the employee of the month and $100 for the runner-up. Ralph and his supervisors would determine, on a purely subjective basis, the winners.
   Over the 14 years I’ve owned my own business, I have organized numerous contests. Some have worked out well, most have not. The few that were relatively successful had one simple factor in their favor – when the winner or winners were announced, there was no disputing the results. The decision was based on cold, hard statistics or facts that could have been used as evidence in court.
   When Ralph said we would determine the winners based on purely subjective observations, I should have nixed the idea right away then and there. But like I said, every so often I feel a need to repeat my mistakes. There’s always that chance the human race evolved dramatically in the three years since I last tried this contest.
   Ralph came to me last week and told me the names of the winners for July. I couldn’t disagree with his choices. They were both good people and excellent employees.
   I told him to write a memo and post it on the bulletin board, announcing the winners and explaining what factors were attributable to their being named "Employees of the Month." Other employees could then see what it takes to make the grade and perhaps win the award for August, since the July winners wouldn’t be eligible for a repeat victory.
   As soon as the memo went up, the rumblings began. The morale boost for the two winners was just what we had in mind. Unfortunately, there were 48 other employees who in varying degrees considered themselves losers. Their morale was, to say the least, not good.
   "I told you it was a stupid idea," I said to Ralph when he sneaked into my office to avoid the lynch mob that was after him.
   "You approved," he replied. "Why didn’t you stop me?"
   "You sold me on its merits," I said, shrugging. "I thought you’d make wiser choices for the winners."
   "You know as well as I do that whoever I picked would be a disastrous choice. It appears almost everyone in the company thinks they should have won it themselves."
   At that moment, Nora, one of Ralph’s supervisors, stuck her head in the door to announce that morale had hit an all-time low. Rumors were swirling as to why Ralph chose the two winners, and none of them had to do with performance.
   "That’s ridiculous," snorted Ralph. "They are simply the best employees we have."
   "I’ve also been hearing all sorts of negative comments about the winners," said Nora. "They’re lazy, they only work hard when Ralph is around, things like that."
   I thanked Nora for her enlightening input and asked her to do what she could to appease the losers of the campaign. She said she’d try, but it wouldn’t’ be easy.
   Then I turned to Ralph. "Damage control time?"
   "Apparently," replied Ralph. "What do you suggest?"
   "First things first," I said. "Cancel the contest for August and for every other month until the end of time."
   Ralph nodded and went to write his memo. He wrote that the contest was a disaster, that it created more hard feelings than good feelings, and that it would be discontinued effective immediately. The money that would have gone for awards would instead be placed in a company party fund.
   Naturally, this caused another uproar. Not only did Ralph’s "pets" get the prize for the first month of the contest, but they would be ineligible for August, meaning the contest would finally be fair.
   And probably 37 of the 48 employees were positive they would have won it this time. Canceling it was grossly unfair.
   True, but also wise.


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